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My Curious Path to Success as an Autistic Psychotherapist

“I have a curious constitution.” — Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Sign of Four”

What an intense life changing and enlightening moment of my life, to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 47 years of age. The full spectrum (no pun intended) of my life, the differences in how I make sense out of my world and relationships compared to many other people, now make sense. I can relax into the wonderful reality that I am just wired neurologically different than many folks. But this article is not a plug about my diagnosis — it is about the curious responses a few individuals have given me when they find out I’m an autistic person who is also a psychotherapist. The article is about challenging the myth that autistic individuals lack empathy. It just that we, and in this case I, have different road maps for achieving this thing we define collectively as empathy.

I have to briefly share some background story in order for you to fully understand my motivation to write this article. During my assessment, the psychiatrist, who was a lovely individual, seemed just a little more than a touch flabbergasted that an individual on the spectrum could be a successful therapist. Fast-forward to a couple of weeks later, the same interesting response (flabbergast) arose when sharing my recent diagnosis with a work colleague, who also is the office manager where I work. Although the response from both individuals was positive, it seems I am considered somewhat of an enigma in my ability to find strategies to relate and empathize with my clients.

What exactly is empathy then? Greater Good Foundation defines it as the ability to see other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. They continue by saying empathy consists of experiencing sensations and feelings in response to others’ emotions (affective or emotional empathy) and perspective taking, or our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions (cognitive empathy). Autistic people are supposed to have difficulty with empathy, hence the interesting responses from both the psychiatrist and my work colleague.

My brain has evolved and created a way to work around some the challenges I inherently experience attuning to a person’s inner world and knowing what that person is thinking or feeling. My superpower, one that several other autistic people have expressed on social media, is the ability to be deeply curious, in an intellectual sense, about other people’s emotional and cognitive experiences. I call this neat superpower “sleuth empathy,” that is being an empathy detective, taking the time to ask salient questions and search for information to understand how someone makes sense out of their world and experiences. While some might think that not having a good built-in empathy detection machine would make life difficult (it does at times), I am suggesting that it has also provided me with some distinct advantages.

Those who are blessed with large amounts of built-in empathy have the advantage of being able to connect deeply at an emotional level to another’s experience. This “instinctual” knowing means the empath can respond immediately to another person’s emotional experience and not have to go through the more laborious step-by-step process the sleuth empath uses to figure out the emotional needs of another. The empath’s gift of instinctually “knowing” what another is feeling can be of great benefit; ideally, the other person immediately gets the feeling of being understood and cared for. However, “knowing” carries a potential negative risk — the assumption my experience is the same as yours, when it clearly might not be, or might only have portions that are the same. This can lead to the empath taking actions out of sync with and ultimately not the most helpful for the person in need of support.

Being a sleuth empath allows me to sidestep the observer bias (the tendency for letting subjective feelings dictate how we see a situation, and then letting those feelings subconscious influence others) that often arises when we are equipped with built-in empathy software. Being human means we cannot fully overcome the observer bias, as past experience, perceptions and beliefs color how we see the world and others.

Being a sleuth empath does not prevent observer bias for me, but it does provide some protection. Entering into an emotional interaction with someone without having an intuitive hunch of what they are experiencing (like the empath) places me in the position of either making an assumption (not wise, too great a risk for major errors) or taking the perspective of “I have no idea what you are experiencing” (the more logical approach, seeing I cannot place myself in your head).

The only way for me to truly gain access into your experience is for you to tell me about it. Here is where sleuth empathy shines; the bulk of my detective work comes from the belief that I clearly cannot know what you are experiencing, but through being curious and non-judgmental, I can inquire about your experience, formulate a hypothesis, check with you to see if it is correct, and continue to refine this process until I am understanding your experience.

I believe sleuth empathy comes from the ultimate respect for your experience. I have no insight into your inner world, and assuming I do could lead to inaccurate diagnosis and response. My wrong response could lead you to feel more misunderstood, amplifying emotions such as anger, hurt and sadness. It’s far better to go into our interaction with the mindset that you are the expert and can help me understand your experience, and teach me how to best support you. I can then put on my curiosity hat (not literally), ask questions and clarify statements, which allows you to make sense out of your experience and educates me on how to best support you.

From my perspective, sleuth empathy is a win-win for all. Sherlock Holmes, arguably the greatest sleuth of all, succinctly reminds us of the dangers of assuming and the importance of making sure we take the time to get all the facts when he states “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has the data. Insensibly once begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Getty image by Jacob Lund.